Inverted Commas 18: Hands tied
“Evil can be unscrupulous, and good can’t. Evil has nothing to stop it doing what it wants, while good has one hand tied behind its back. To do the things it needs to do to win, it’d have to become evil to do ’em.” — Farder Coram, Chapter 15 ‘Letters’
Parts of Philip Pullman’s The Secret Commonwealth (2018) have both a universal relevance and one equally specific regarding the times we live in now. A chapter in which Lyra as the main protagonist is trying to escape detection in the Norfolk Broads is just such an instance. She is discussing with the gyptian elder Coram how it is that the Consistorial Court of Discipline is able to achieve what it does, and Coram gives her his view of the current political situation in Lyra’s world.
“It all changed then to what we got now — a government what dun’t trust the people, and a people that’s afraid of the government, each side spying on the other.”
It’s of course in the nature of politics that you have one ruling party and at least one other in opposition. In a nominal democracy there is however a trust that both sides uphold the laws framed to ensure good government, and that there is a fair degree of consensus as to what counts as fair treatment for society.
But when that consensus dissipates, and the rulers are seen to not abide by the rule of law, or that the laws promulgated are not fair to all citizens, then suspicion and lying and underhand dealings (and worse) become commonplace.
How does a government or similar authority — mercenary, unprincipled, privileged, self-serving or misguided, or all of these — achieve what it does?
“The other side’s got an energy that our side en’t got. Comes from their certainty about being right. If you got that certainty you’ll be willing to do anything to bring about the end you want. It’s the oldest human problem, Lyra, an’ it’s the difference between good and evil.”
This is the eternal dichotomy: does copying your opponent’s reprehensible tactics make you no better than them, even if the end result is to the greater good? Does merely claiming the moral high ground ultimately achieve what’s equitable or is it a mug’s game? This ethical issue runs through much of high fantasy, Pullman’s included, but it’s as pertinent to our own times as it is for all time.
A review of The Secret Commonwealth will appear here in due course